pork barrel spending

Lane Street Project: $50,000 mystery solved.

Much as I suspected, that $50,000 state appropriation for private Herring-Ellis Cemetery caught the City off-guard. Here’s how the Wilson Times described the exchange when State Representative Ken Fontenot appeared before council to tout state budget details:

A quick yes. Kudos to Mayor Carlton Stevens for nipping that stunt in the bud and securing authorization to devote the entire amount to Vick Cemetery, a historic city-owned burial ground. I look forward to discussions about how this generous appropriation can best be utilized.

Lane Street Project: the City’s mystery cemetery project.

The Wilson Times‘ on-line edition reported today on the 611-page draft of the North Carolina state budget, which earmarks $66.3 million for Wilson County. Among the education, infrastructure, and recreation projects, there was this curious item:

What is this?

First, what is “Herring-Ellis cemetery”?

Here’s how I described it in a 11 September 2017 blogpost: “This small family cemetery is completely hidden in a copse of trees just outside the gates of Wiggins Mill Water Treatment Plant on Forest Hills Road in Wilson. Until relatively recently, this area — nearly four miles south of downtown — was outside city limits. Few gravestones are visible in the tangle of catbrier, pines and oak saplings, but several oblong indentations — some feet deep — mark burial sites just as clearly. This cemetery holds the remains of several generations of the family of Littleton and Judy Barnes Ellis, a couple born in slavery. The couple and at least four of their children — Bryant, Lucy, Maggie, Lizzie Sarah — are buried here on land that once belonged to Littleton Ellis.”

In November 2018, the Times reported about a group of Gentlemen’s Agreement students who spent time clearing Ellis cemetery in a service project with Wilson County Genealogical Society. North Carolina Representative Ken Fontenot, who was the students’ program mentor at the time, said they hoped “to find out more about those who are laid to rest in the area and the history behind them.” (When I read that, I reached out to reporter Olivia Neeley to let her know that information about the family buried in this cemetery was readily available at Black Wide-Awake. Since then, I’ve also posted information about Littleton Ellis’ enslavement.)

Where is the cemetery?

The cemetery lies inside a stand of trees just west of the intersection of Forest Hills Road and Forest Hills Loop, just before the driveway into the Wiggins Mills Water Treatment facility. It measures only .28 acres — 100 feet by 130 feet by 101 feet by 89 feet, or roughly two basketball courts.

Aerial view of cemetery site courtesy of Wilson County NC GIS Website.

“$50,000 in capital improvements or equipment”?

A capital improvement is a permanent structural alteration or repair to a property that improves it substantially, increasing its overall value. What kind of improvements would cost $50,000 on a piece of land a quarter of an acre in size? What equipment?

And what in the world does the City of Wilson have to do with this?

This is most perplexing of all.

The City of Wilson does not own this cemetery. Tax records for the parcel list no owner. It is described simply as “Cemetery Forest Hills Rd.”

Why is the City willing to accept $50,000 from the State of North Carolina for capital improvements and equipment for land it does not own? What is the public interest in increasing the value of a private cemetery? (For obvious reasons, I’m especially interested in the City’s answer to this question.) The City has made clear that it is not in the business of maintaining private cemeteries, having turned a deaf ear to pleas for assistance with Odd Fellows Cemetery. (In fact, the summer after Lane Street Project began clean-ups at Odd Fellows, a contractor paid by the City for 25+ years discontinued mowing the front section of that cemetery. The City calls it a coincidence.) A year ago, the City deeded over Vick Cemetery to Wilson Cemetery Commission in an attempt to wash its hands of direct responsibility for that publicly owned site. (See Rodger Lentz’ email — and Grant Goings’ reply — here.)

Under what authority would the City make these improvements? Under what authority could they enter private property to do so? Who would administer the funds? And why do they need to buy equipment? If the plan is to clear Ellis of overgrowth, don’t the Cemetery Commission or Public Works Department already own sufficient equipment to handle this small job? If not, wouldn’t they contract out the work? (Begging the question, again, of why the City would reverse its position on its role in the restoration of private cemeteries and do anything at all at Ellis.)

Whose idea was this? The City of Wilson is hemming and hawing and poor-mouthing about restoration of a cemetery holding 4200+ graves, that it has owned for 110 years and has neglected and abused — but is lobbying for $50,000 to fix up a private cemetery with perhaps a dozen graves? And, apropos of poor-mouthing, why isn’t the City instead lobbying for state funds to do right by Vick Cemetery? And, if the City didn’t ask for this gift, why did whoever sponsored this bit of pork barrel choose to bestow his largesse on a quarter-acre private cemetery versus an eight-acre public cemetery?

Finally, in this year of 2023, is the City of Wilson getting ready to mess around in somebody else’s family’s graves? Have no lessons been learned about making decisions and taking actions in African-American cemeteries without permission and in contravention of state law???

Please make this make sense.

[By the way — Vick Cemetery is not on the published agenda for the September 21 council meeting, folks. Nonetheless, keep your foot on the City’s neck.]